The internet has many positive aspects. We can now connect with others with more ease than ever before. However, this increased accessibility brings with it the temptation to behave in a way we may not usually behave in real life.
This has led to the rise of Internet trolling, which we will explore in this blog.
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A ‘troll’ can be defined as someone who makes deliberately offensive or provocative online posts, usually with the intention of eliciting reactions from others.
It is clear that deliberately offensive or upsetting comments should not be seen as acceptable or part and parcel of living in the Internet age. Recently, Twitter has removed its egg avatar which had become synonymous with accounts created solely for the purpose of harassing or abusing others while remaining anonymous.
But how can the law protect against harassment and bullying on the Internet?
In England and Wales, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 covers comments which cause “distress or anxiety”. The Communications Act 2003 expands on the protection offered by the 1988 Act by including the offence of making threats and establishing the powers of the regulatory authority, OFCOM.
The last key piece of legislation is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which contains offences of online and offline stalking.
There are also common law remedies in the torts of libel and slander, however they work to protect damage to reputation which is not always relevant where comments are intended to cause distress.
The problem arises when trying to balance free speech against public protection, particularly since there is no catch-all objective definition of trolling. A comment that may seem insignificant to one person might cause significant distress to another.
Ultimately, the big challenge is finding where to draw the line in terms of when the legal system should get involved.
There have been prosecutions of internet “trolls” in the past under laws preventing the sending of offensive, indecent or obscene messages. According to 2015 statistics from the Ministry of Justice, convictions of internet trolls have increased tenfold in the past decade.
Those creating or spreading offensive Internet content have also been prosecuted under hate crime legislation.
The number of people arrested for ‘online crimes’ has increased dramatically in London. In 2015-2016 the number of people prosecuted under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 rose by 13% and prosecutions under s.1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 by 32%. Breaking this law under s.127 could result in a six-month prison sentence or a fine of up to £5,000.
In 2015 the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill introduced a targeted law against ‘revenge porn’ which has led to hundreds of prosecutions since its introduction.
Furthermore, under current anti-harassment laws, internet ‘trolls’ could face two years in prison for ‘online harassment’. What is more, new guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service has stated that ‘virtual mobbing’ could be prosecuted as if it occurred offline. Nonetheless, it was stressed that prosecutors would not be entitled to ‘stifle free speech’.
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It is clear that in recent years the government have taken a far more proactive approach in tackling internet trolling. However, many question whether the laws are as easy to enforce as they should be.
“Trolling” is not a legal term in the UK, but the UK government are in the process of conducting a review into digital crime. It has been suggested that a new law preventing “misuse of digital technologies and services” has been proposed and is envisaged to include harassment, stalking, hate crime, revenge porn, identity theft, cyber theft, online grooming and trolling – the closest thing to cyberbullying law.
It is also hoped that the new law will help the police identify online crimes more easily.
Ultimately, the proposed legislation could be a big step forward in fighting against internet trolling and cyberbullying. While the right to free speech is a fundamental one in an open and democratic society, the law should not hesitate to tackle intentionally abusive and distressing online behaviour.
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Author: Mariya Rankin
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